Employee wellbeing: how best to support an employee through fertility treatment
Fertility issues affect a great number of people in the UK and yet many employers still struggle to support staff who face this difficult issue.
With one in six couples experiencing fertility issues, and increasing numbers of couples taking up assisted reproduction, it is likely that organisations will have employees who are affected by the commonality of infertility.
Infertility shouldn’t be feared or hived off from any other medical issues – it needs treatment, and deserves the same response organisations should give to other health conditions.
Recently published research by LinkedIn shows that only two in five employees undergoing fertility treatment feel supported by their manager, and also that the vast majority of HR professionals (91%) feel they would benefit from education and support to help them better understand employee fertility issues.
I also know from my work as a psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples through infertility and the associated treatments that employees benefit hugely from a supportive workplace. It can make a positive difference to stress levels – or even mental health. In fact, work could even become a positive place to be, and offer a welcome distraction from an unavoidably stressful time.
Culture change relies on education
Before offering support (or devising policies), it’s important to be informed about the treatments employees may be undertaking. Infertility shouldn’t be feared or hived off from any other medical issues – it needs treatment, and deserves the same response organisations should give to other health conditions.
We commonly associate ‘fertility treatment’ with ‘IVF’ (in vitro fertilisation), but there are other protocols – such as ‘ovulation induction’ or ‘ICSI’ or ‘surrogacy’ that involve invasive and sometimes lengthy interventions. Each IVF cycle may well differ (in length and steps taken) from another, as every person will respond differently to treatment.
Female employees may need repeated scans, and may respond differently to the drugs prescribed (that may be inhaled, injected or inserted via pessaries), and necessary procedures. Male employees may need less time off for tests, but may want to attend scans and support their partner, and the same applies to female partners. Fertility Network UK is a fantastic resource for further information – and training – on all of this.
Flexibility is key
Given that every employee is different, and each fertility intervention will differ from the next, flexible working is probably the most important supportive act an organisation can offer, alongside compassion and understanding.
An employee may have to attend many clinic appointments for check-ups and tests, and there may be some days in a treatment cycle when it’s not possible to work. Offering a period of flexible working or the opportunity to work at home could make a huge difference. Bear in mind, however, that everyone is different, and some employees may not want to take their foot off the pedal at all – the key is to talk, and to collaborate on what is best.
It’s fair to say that by the time a couple step inside a fertility clinic, they have been through many months – if not years – of disappointment and loss at not being able to conceive naturally. This in itself can be a real grief of ‘what could have been’, and fertility treatments are no quick fix either - failure rates are high.
Infertility runs the risk of tipping women – and men – from manageable stress to unmanageable stress, or even serious mental health issues – such as anxiety, depression or even trauma.
When an IVF cycle doesn’t result in a pregnancy, this can be experienced very similarly to a miscarriage. Acknowledging and consoling a loss can be very supportive.
This means it’s important to be mindful of downplaying the experience of fertility treatment – it’s never ‘just an IVF cycle’ nor will you ever ‘know all about it’ – even if you have supported someone else. Nor can you reassure anyone that it ‘will work the next time’ – especially as there may not be a next time. Bear in mind that everyone’s journey to a pregnancy – or non-pregnancy – is unique.
Many employees fear ‘coming clean’ about their fertility issues for fear of being discriminated against. While explicit reassurance about this could be valuable, it’s also worth discussing with the employee who else in the organisation does or can know about what’s going on. Be mindful about other employees’ pregnancies, and that this could be difficult to bear.
Ensure that you are clear about maternity rights too. Maternity rights and protection begin on the day of an ‘embryo transfer’ and will end two weeks after a negative pregnancy test, or right through to the end of maternity leave if the pregnancy continues.
Offer further support
Infertility runs the risk of tipping women – and men – from manageable stress to unmanageable stress, or even serious mental health issues – such as anxiety, depression or even trauma. ‘Keeping an eye’ on your employee is crucial, and it may be worth flagging up access to, for example, an employee assistance programme counselling service.
It’s also vital to keep channels of communication open to ensure that everyone feels supported – for example, by offering to check in with an employee by email each week/weekly one-to-one.
It may even be that if your organisation has a number of employees going through treatment, finding out from them if they would like to support each other via a network.
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Julia is a psychotherapist with a special interest and experience of working with clients who have experienced pregnancy loss or infertility. She has been a Trustee of the Miscarriage Association, and now continues with support work for the charity. Her first book The Brink of Being - talking about miscarriage was published in 2019 (...